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The Stories of Yarn

The following article appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of La Vie Claire magazine.

Some women set down a record of their days in a journal, but not Claire Murray. Instead, Claire weaves the texture of her existence into rugs. Step into her home, and you literally walk into her life. More precisely, you encounter the flowers, boats, harbors, arbors, and patterns that populate Claire's reality. The shingles on her church, the sky over the water in a nearby bay, the nuances of color in a petal outside her door—all are woven into the rugs under foot. Sit down with Claire Murray, and, like a piece of yarn woven through jute, you are hooked into her fabric.

Many of you have wondered about Claire Murray: how her passion plays itself out in cabled yarn, braid, and printer's ink; how she made the leap from just another woman who hooked rugs for a hobby to someone who shared that pastime with people throughout the world, how she then began publishing a magazine to applaud passions in their many forms. I also wondered, and it was not until Claire took me upstairs in her Cape Cod home, and we began rummaging through closets, crawling under beds, unwrapping forgotten rugs hooked years ago, that I fully understood. Claire Murray is a storyteller, and her medium is yarn.

Claire once explained to me that she started selling hooked rugs because she is an artist, but she never wanted to part with any of her works of art. This explains all of those rugs -hundreds of hooked rugs -stored in closets. Her current favorites are laid out on the floor, while those just begun and those in process are tucked beside just about every comfortable chair in her home. In other words, all of the rugs that make up Claire Murray's life are somewhere close by, and as she brings them out, unwraps and unrolls them, she begins to tell a story. The narrative might be about the catboats lost in a tragic fire nearby. It might be the tale of a favorite garden, of a town visited, or of a rooster seen and heard. Then she sits down in a chair, tucks the burlap backing for a rug into her lap, and demonstrates how to fetch the yarn back and forth through fabric, stacking up stitches, creating a pile. Before you know it, you are pulling yarn through burlap too.

That was how Claire learned to hook from Maggie Meredith. Claire had studied fine art at the National Academy in New York City. She had explored sculpture, drawing, and painting, and upstairs in the same rooms where her rugs are kept, she flips quickly through innumerable framed sketches from her student days. All would have found buyers if she had been willing to part with any of them, but she could not bring herself to sell them. Finally, she settled on printmaking as a major, primarily because it allowed her to produce art without ever really letting it go.She eventually left New York City, moved to Nantucket, and became an innkeeper. She called her place Fair Gardens, an appropriate name given the legendary gardens she would create. Summer sparkled, but winter needed warmth as well.That's when she sought out Maggie Meredith, considered by many to be the rug hooking guru of Nantucket, and asked her to teach her how to hook. Undoubtedly, she still has that first completed rug somewhere in safekeeping. The defining trait of rug hooking is that it is a compendium of many influences, much like fusion cooking or the confluence of people who make up this melting pot of a nation.Similarly, a Claire Murray rug is the product of all the teachers and all the kindred rug hookers with whom she has ever worked. These teachers are expressed in her stitches, in the way the wool is stacked, in the pile underfoot.

The beauty of rug hooking is that it is a chronicle of the past. Traditionally, hooking makes use of life's leftovers. Hooked rugs are the patchwork quilts of the floor. But they were not always underfoot. Carol Harvey-Clark of the Spruce Top Rug Hooking Studio in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, has been hooking since shortly after her husband passed away in 1990. As she tells it, she took a trip with her son to Maui, where he saw a hooked rug and loved it. Before she knew it, she was unpacking a piece of burlap with a sketch done by her son chronicling everything they had experienced together in Hawaii. “So, it's all Christopher's fault,” she says.She went to Halifax to learn how to work the pattern he had drawn. “And that was the end of it for me,” she says, “I was hooked…”

Carol is one of many craftspeople continuing an art that is nearly two hundred years old and is ardently pursued in Nova Scotia. The prototypical hooked rugs, she says, were bed rugs stitched to pull up over the covers on bitter nights. The first manifestations of the craft have been traced back to the early1800s in the weaving regions of Yorkshire, England, where frugal mill workers swept up leftover scraps of fabric—called “thrums”— brought them home, drew them through cloth, and created bedcovers and hearth rugs. Thrumming, it was called. Sailors then used a similar method to draw yarn or rope through canvas as part of their rigging, which explains why rug hooking became associated with harbor towns and maritime regions. When burlap became popular for sacking after the1850s, it became the backing of choice, a recycling of grain bags.

From there, rug hooking as we know it blossomed along the coastal regions ofNew England and the Canadian Maritimes. It was the art of frugal people—folks who could not afford Oriental carpets or even supplies to create their own handiwork. Rug hooking has always been a humble craft.

Of course, it has come a long way. The Spruce Top Rug Hooking Studio shows the work of thirty different craftspeople, and Carol Harvey-Clark points out the diversity of styles among the women and men who sell their products from the quaint old studio nestled beside the road to historic Lunenburg. The patterns represent-ed vary from florals to pictorials to geometrics (men tend to work the geometric patterns). Although the traditions might be primitive, the craft has moved far beyond its early expressions to qualify as art. Most Nova Scotians use wool, not only for its warmth (and warmth is a pressing issue in Nova Scotia), but also for its other qualities. “It's strong, and wool has a memory for shape,” Carol explains.Wool may be the favored choice, but any materials and all sorts of bling are now fair game. As for the swirling patterns hooked into the pile of the sky or the waters of the sea found in the solid areas and backgrounds of a pattern, Carol says, “It adds interest. If something is boring to do, it's boring to look at.” This also helps explain why rug hooking became a social craft. Typically, it takes eight hours or so to hook an area the size of your hand. “This isn't a race,” Carol always tells her students. The camaraderie helps hookers stay on task. The Spruce Top RugHooking Studio is just one of many venues and shops where hookers come together to work and students come to learn.

This aspect of shared experience appealed to Claire because she is a storyteller, because she loves dialogue, and because she appreciates community and tradition. But the process and the flexibility of the craft also fascinated her. “Rug hooking is forgiving,” she says. Unlike cross-stitch or embroidery, with rug hooking you can follow your own lead. If you pull your hook through each hole in the burlap, the finished rug is too rigid. Instead, you pick and choose as you work, spiraling the tufts around, giving your creation individuality. The pictures and scenes depicted are only part of a hooked rug's eloquence. The way you work is also represented into the final rug. Your soul is written in the pile.

Spontaneity, community-both important, but also key for Claire are the materials she uses. There came a point in her evolution as a crafter, after she had been influenced by innumerable fellow hookers and while she was bonding with the rug hooking community throughout the country, that she suddenly found her favorite source of yarn was going out of business. The thought of trying to work without that cabled wool was unfathomable. Rather than lose her source, Claire bought the company and increased their color range to accommodate the many avenues where her imagination is apt to roam.

You cannot really leave Claire Murray's house without taking a piece of burlap up into your lap and pulling yarn through, and there is something about it that is infinitely satisfying. It feeds your heart. “It's therapeutic,” Claire says. “It uses snippets of yarn or wool, and it fits into little pieces of time.” Rug hooking has always been a humble craft, drawing on yarn bits and rags, threading cloth shreds and scraps through burlap from grain sacks on their second career. This brings me to another remarkable thing about Claire Murray. She has the uncanny ability to identify any color of yarn simply by seeing the tiniest shred. Whether it is gull gray, shingle gray, or hull gray, she can distinguish it at twenty paces. That is what clued me in in the first place... That is what told me for sure-Claire Murray dreams in color, and with every scrap of wool you pull, you share that technicolor dream.

Story by Tovah Martin

Photography by Kendra Clineff